XIX.5 September + October 2012
Page: 48
Digital Citation

The design case

Elizabeth Boling, Kennon Smith

When designers work, no matter what process they follow or type of thinking they employ, they inevitably face the moment of invention. This is the point at which no theory, guideline, example, or statement of best practice can tell the designer or the design team specifically what to do [1]. Resolving this point into actual invention may, of course, take more than a literal moment—but it is the part of the process in which that which did not previously exist is conceived [2].

Researchers who have observed closely how designers actually work have described what happens in the moment of invention. Rivka Oxman points to a key element contributing to invention, precedent—direct or vicarious experience of preexisting designs and other configurations of materials or events in the world [3]. Oxman observes that designers “browse freely and associatively between multiple precedents in order to make relevant connection… [This] browsing enables the discovery of new, often unanticipated concepts.” Lawson shows that designers use precedent in a complex way, trying out the affordances of observed and experienced designs in the context of new problems in order to understand the problems and realize previously unknown solutions simultaneously [4]. In addition to its role in learning, access to and use of precedent is so significant in design practice that it is often cited as a key component of expertise [5].

ins01.gif An edited collection of essays on Wright’s Price Tower, this book provides a thorough overview of the tower, including: a description of the design and redesign, a timeline of major events during design and construction, images of models and the finished interior and exterior, reproductions of design drawings, occupants’ reactions after moving in, and a review of architectural critics’ responses to the building [11].

Whether experienced directly or vicariously, precedent is an important form of design knowledge, stored as episodic memory. Designers gather precedent proactively and opportunistically over the course of their careers, often without a specific application in mind at the time of acquisition. This precedent is organized individually by every designer through the complex influences of formal studies, norms in a discipline, styles or trends of their times, and the personal history of its use by that designer. From this store of precedent, designers or design teams draw potential solutions, or solution patterns, that serve to clarify an existing design situation or inform future design moves [5].

Precedent Available via the Design Case

In its simplest sense, a design case as we conceive it is precedent made available as a description of a designed artifact or experience in visual, verbal, or time-based media, or a combination of these forms. The description might be as minimal as the simple image of an object, or as extensive as a book-length account describing the context and genesis of a design, as well as the design process, including its multiple iterations, creation of the final design, and its eventual use.

ins02.gif A high-utility, low-rigor design case describing CRiSTAL, an MIT Media Lab project featuring an on-demand flat-surface interface for controlling devices in the home [12].

In order to build a store of precedent that prepares them adequately for the responsibility of modern practice [6], designers need access to numerous and varied examples of designs. In interaction design, direct experience is widely available—at least, experience of designs that are available to the public, as many of them are. It is possible to interrogate these experiences, effectively imagining the circumstances and decisions that brought them into being. However, such interrogation relies entirely on the design knowledge of the designer who is using the precedent. Such precedent has value, but it does not take advantage of the design knowledge that went into the artifact, which can be quite rich and complex [7,8].

What Is Not a Design Case?

The teaching case is a detailed fiction or fictionalized account of designing used to provoke reflection and discussion in classroom settings. These are usually edited, with a resulting loss of fidelity, in order to emphasize the aspects required for teaching. While design cases may be used to unquestionable benefit in the classroom, they are not the same form of representing knowledge.

The case study in design is a type of research aimed at building generalized knowledge, which means that the focus is on aspects of a design or design process that may be related to other instances and used to build up principles, guidelines, models, or theories applicable to other design situations or to all design situations. The emphasis in representation must therefore be on analysis versus description, and on the determination of utility contained within the case itself—that is, the developers of a case study, and reviewers of it, must decide in advance of its publication whether it will be a useful contribution to knowledge. There must also be a conscious attempt on the part of writers in such a study to interpret its value for readers. In essence, such a case aims to build knowledge in social science rather than to build design knowledge.

Design-based research, common now in educational research, involves design projects carried out cooperatively with stakeholders—often teachers and sometimes students—who then use the designs with, everyone hopes, beneficial effects. In these situations, the designed artifact serves as a component in the environment used both to improve the environment and to test the theory under investigation. This artifact is primarily, or equally, a tool that helps set the stage for the research endeavor. It is part of the experimental condition. The knowledge-building goal, however, is to develop theory regarding the activity supported by the design (learning) rather than to study or describe the design, or the process of designing, in these situations.

Utility and Rigor in Design Cases

Every design case is potentially useful, owing to the way this form of knowledge is taken up and put into use by designers. We see the property of utility easily when considering trade books and magazines common on the shelves of major bookstores, in which collections of images—icons, architecture, or logo designs, perhaps—are collected. These are often accompanied by minimal text, perhaps only the name of a designer or house and the name of a client.

Novice designers may study these collections of very basic design cases, storing precedent almost indiscriminately and without sophisticated internal organization, perhaps forgetting as many as are remembered—perhaps remembering those retained with an intensity tied to their fresh excitement about and motivation for designing. Alternatively, a novice might turn to such a collection of design cases and focus on a few that offer immediate affordances for a specific problem in hand.

Experienced designers also benefit from minimalist design cases like these. They can be scanned rapidly and integrated easily into existing schema; some may not be remembered in their particulars even though their properties may be apprehended clearly, and others may be stored in detail. An expert may study such a collection closely, able to realistically imagine some of the contextual factors, constraints, and tensions that went into individual examples. Designers have reported using precedent to examine the specific moves made by other designers, to keep up-to-date on general trends in their fields, to refresh and inspire themselves, and to determine where their own practice fits within that of their peers [9].

Though utility is virtually guaranteed in design cases because, eventually, every case is likely to be experienced by someone who finds it useful, rigor is not. By rigor we refer to the thoroughness and accuracy of a case, and the degree to which it does or does not adhere to criteria that can be applied to the case regardless of the context in which it may be used.

If utility is a foregone conclusion, why worry about rigor? The authors are both design educators and are therefore particularly concerned with the needs and abilities of novice and developing designers. These individuals do not yet have a well-honed ability to infer the context and factors that have produced a finished artifact or experience. They may assume that everything they see is a full realization of what the original designer intended, or miss the subtlety and iteration required to arrive at the solution as presented.

Experienced designers may benefit no less from access to rigorous design cases. Such cases expand one designer’s appreciation of the conditions under which another designer made the moves that resulted in the artifact or experience as presented. Descriptions of moves considered and rejected, or made and later reversed, likewise contribute understandings to design knowledge that may be entirely obscured in a less rigorous case. The work of design becomes a recognized and accessible component of knowledge in the field, raising its perceived value, increasing understanding of what design professionals do, and encouraging disciplined practice.

What Makes a Design Case Rigorous?

The rigor of design cases is measured by the standard of trustworthiness. The use to which a case will be put is indeterminate; therefore, the responsibility of those producing a rigorous case is to provide as much support for those indeterminate uses as possible. We draw from naturalistic inquiry [10], in which there are several techniques for increasing the trustworthiness of a study, as shown in Table 1.

It is critical to represent the perspectives of multiple contributors to the design activity and assure readers that descriptions of that activity are thorough and accurate. One method for doing this is to engage in the public testing of knowledge claims, meaning that design case authors will explain the reasoning employed in a case as transparently as possible and from the perspective in place at the time, not inventing rationale after the fact or speaking as though the outcome of designing had been inevitable. The second method is to report actions and decisions concretely, and not as abstractions, such as principles or models.

The Question of Generalization, or Lessons Learned

In some of the early design cases submitted to International Journal of Designs for Learning (IJDL), editors and advisory board members have noticed a tendency on the part of authors to conclude their cases with statements that read very much like “lessons learned for next time.”

ins03.gif This overview of Renzo Piano’s design for the Art Institute of Chicago’s new wing provides examples of design images from early sketches through presentation renderings and models [13].

Representations like this cast such cases as poor imitations of knowledge-building traditions to which they are ill suited. Design does not lead to a singular correct answer, so the design case must be flexible enough to accommodate the unpredictable nature of design and its outcomes. Design cases cannot serve, and should not be seen as attempts, to prescribe action on the part of other designers.

Rigorous Design Cases and Building Disciplined Practice

The reflection and focus required to produce rigorous design cases benefit novice and experienced designers alike. Their publication multiplies those benefits by providing rich precedent to all designers in a domain, and by exposing to clients and the public the specialized forms of knowledge used by designers in their work. Over time, sharing rigorous precedent across a design community can be expected to raise the shared standards for reflection and the disciplined use of design knowledge in that community. Even in communities already accustomed to producing volumes of high-utility precedent, rigorous design cases can play this role.


1. Krippendorff, K. The Semantic Turn. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton, FL, 2006.

2. Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. The Design Way: Intentional change in an Unpredictable World: Foundations and Fundamentals of Design Competence. Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 2003.

3. Oxman R. Precedents in design: A computational model for the organization of precedent knowledge. Design Studies 15, 2 (1994), 141–157.

4. Lawson, B. How Designers Think (3rd Ed.). Architectural Press, London, UK, 2005.

5. Lawson, B. Schemata, gambits and precedent: Some factors in design expertise. Design Studies 24, 5 (2004), 443–457.

6. Lowgren, J. and Stolterman, E. Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology. The MIT Press, Boston, MA, 2007.

7. Blevis, E. and Siegel, M. The explanation for design explanations. 11th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Interaction Design Education and Research: Current and Future Trends (Las Vegas, NV). 2005.

8. Tatar, D. The design tensions framework. Human-Computer Interaction 22, (2007), 413–451.

9. Rowe, D., Smith, K., and Boling, E. In defense of picture books: Design artifacts as sources of knowledge for instructional designers. Association for Educational Communications and Technology (Orlando, FL). 2005.

10. Lincoln, Y. and Guba, E. Naturalistic Inquiry. SAGE Publications, Newbury Park, CA, 1985.

11. Alofsin, A., ed. Prairie skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower. Rizzoli, New York, 2005.

12. Haller, M., Seifried, T., Scott, S. Pertender, C. Sakamoto, D., and Inami, M. CRiSTAL. interactions 18, 3 (2011), 8.

13. Cuno, J. and Thorne, M. Zero Gravity: The Art Institute, Renzo Piano, and Building for a New Century. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 2005.


Elizabeth Boling is a professor of instructional systems technology and associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Education at Indiana University. Her research interests include visual design for information and instruction, design education, and design knowledge. She is editor-in-chief of International Journal of Designs for Learning.

Kennon M. Smith is an assistant professor in the Interior Design Studies Group within the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design at Indiana University. Her research interests include the development of design expertise and the evolution of meanings of design within and between design disciplines.


T1Table 1. Trustworthiness factors from naturalistic inquiry as applied to design cases.

Sidebar: Other Noteworthy Examples of Precedent

Design Smule’s iPhone Ocarina

Though somewhat promotional in tone, this design case is notable for the thoroughness and transparency of explanation for critical design features and the decisions behind them. https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~ge/publish/ocarina-nime2009.pdf

The Story of the Ribbon

This design case is especially strong in presentation of the context for the design, in negative case analysis (design directions that were not followed through in the end), thick description of the design, and reliance on audit trails—records of design decisions and activities drawn upon to explain the evolution of the project. http://office-blogs.net/UI/UX09_Harris.pdf

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